Monthly Archives: September 2009

Žižek at Rollins

Last night, I heard Slavoj Žižek speak at Rollins College (where I got my BA), as part of the Winter Park Institute‘s speaker series. I didn’t take notes (my pen was dry!), so I can’t give anything approaching a full recount or analysis–but I can briefly discuss some lingering impressions. (Is “lingering impressions” a cliche? Not sure.)

I think his talk was ominously titled, “Is There an Ethics of Psychoanalysis?”–a title that I admit almost kept me from coming. I’ve read excerpts of his work in literary theory class, with a generally favorable, “I should read more sometime!” impression, but I’m not an expert by any means in psychoanalytic criticism, Lacan, etc.  But I was happily surprised: he spoke meanderingly on porn, obscenity, neighbors, international politics, and God, only really leaning on his title in a strong way toward the end.

Here’s how I would summarize his main points. (Again, keep in mind that this is all from memory, and I’m surely missing many crucial bits.)

  1. Westerners increasingly feel the need to keep a sadly polite distance between themselves and others. The idea of surface-level tolerance has become problematic.
    • One piece of evidence for this: cultural portrayals of sex, which either (in popular movies) tell a complex story of romance but don’t show the details of sex, or (in porn) tell a stupid, surface-level story of romance but show all the details of sex.
    • Another example: all the surface-level talk we do when we meet people–“I’m so glad to meet you!”–which actually keeps people at a distance, as opposed to opening relationships by sharing obscenities with each other, which suddenly lowers boundaries and creates friends.
    • This touches on the idea of political correctness, which he says has the effect of actually supporting racism, sexism, etc. Making sure we say the “right” words carries the cultural implication that doing so erases inequality, which hides the deeper structural problems that need addressing to create real change.
    • Breaking down these kinds of polite boundaries is a way to be true neighbors.
  2. And discussing what makes us true neighbors brings us to God. (Žižek, an atheist who nonetheless theorizes about what he thinks Christianity should be, recently coauthored a debate-style book called The Monstrosity of Christ.) In short, he calls for a vision of God that is weak, which inspires humanity to take radical responsibility for themselves and their neighbors.

In this section, he cites G. K. Chesterton‘s reading of Job: Chesterton (a devout Christian) reads God’s final speech as supporting the idea of a God who is baffled by all the craziness he has created. (I’ve never read Chesterton, but I’d love to; a good friend sees Orthodoxy as the best thing since Desktop Tower Defense.) Here’s a snippet of Chesterton’s thoughts:

God will make Job see a startling universe if He can only do it by making Job see an idiotic universe. To startle man God becomes for an instant a blasphemer; one might almost say that God becomes for an instant an atheist. He unrolls before Job a long panorama of created things, the horse, the eagle, the raven, the wild ass, the peacock, the ostrich, the crocodile. He so describes each of them that it sounds like a monster walking in the sun. The whole is a sort of psalm or rhapsody of the sense of wonder. The maker of all things is astonished at the things He has Himself made. (Source)

At this point, this post could get away from me; I could go on about the different arguments theologians have made about the absolute sovereignty of God and the exact amount of responsibility left to humans; I could dive into the ending of Job and decide just where I stand on it (right now: undecided); I could bring in personal stories about God in my life and read them with or against Žižek’s reading of sovereignty, bringing in the question of just how much a devout atheist can really comprehend divine mysteries. Instead, I want to move briefly into another direction:

When Žižek brought up horrors that people have done to each other in the 20th century, I was reminded of Gary Haugen’s The Good News About Injustice, a pointedly evangelical Christian perspective on evil. (Haugen was director of the U.N. genocide investigation in Rwanda; he’s seen human nastiness up close.) And in some ways, these two very different authors from very different theological perspectives come to a similar conclusion: that humans have a lot more responsibility to stop evil than we tend to imagine.

Seeing the Bible as far more authoritative than would Žižek, Haugen sees God as making four affirmations about injustice in it: 1) that he stands on the side of the suffering and hates injustice, 2) that he feels (yes, actually feels) a real compassion for the suffering, 3) that he is prepared to punish the perpetrators, and 4) that he seeks active rescue. That obviously leaves a huge question: where is this active rescue? As Žižek pointed out, 4 and half million people have died unnatural deaths in the Congo in the last 8 years.  Here’s Haugen’s answer:

If you think about it, two truths apply to everything that God wants accomplished on earth: (1) he could accomplish it on his own through supernatural power; but instead, (2) he chooses for the most part to limit himself to accomplishing that which he can achieve through the obedience of his people. . . . By some great mystery and enormous privilege, he has chosen to use his people, empowered by his Spirit, to complete this task. He simply does not have another plan. (96-97)

Zing! To me, that’s a game-changing perspective: evil in the world continues in such horrifying, heart-crunching ways because Christians refuse to get off their butts and do the work that God has called them to. It’s a terrifying, humanity-honoring sort of responsibility. I think I’ll let that idea sink for a while….

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A Lesson in First Impressions

In Panera, a middle-aged woman played a couple of loud, short clips on her laptop. I thought, “What’s her problem? We’re in flipping Panera, and there are lots of people around, and Vivaldi is playing through the restaurant’s speakers.” I read her face as cold, emotionless, screen-staring.

A couple minutes later, she smiled and said, “I’m sorry, sir, but I have a question. Do you know how to look at an Internet site without closing the site you have open?”

Me: [Pause.] “Yeah, like to have two windows open? Or two tabs?” Recognition started to dawn in me: she probably had no idea how to turn down the volume or even stop the sounds coming from her incomprehensible laptop’s speakers.

Her: “Oh, so it can be done? I would love it if you could show me how!”

I showed her how.

She thanked me and thanked me and thanked me, saying, “I’m just still so touched that you showed me how to do that! Praise the Lord!” Then, while winding down from laughing, I think she even gave me a quiet little blessing, waving her hand in my direction and muttering quickly.

It was very nice. I’m glad she asked.

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Yancey on Information Literacy

I just got back from the 6th Annual Georgia Conference on Information Literacy in tree-lined, square-happy Savannah. Proof that this is a lovely place for a conference: a brief Tweet that I was there (which updates my Facebook status as well) received 7 dreamy-eyed, jealous comments on Facebook in 4 hours, which for me is pretty high traffic. (My favorite: “I love Savannah! My stepfather’s twin brother is a Benedictine monk, and there’s a military school there where all the monks taught.”)

(If you’re saying “Your conference was on what kind of literacy?” you could check out this handy page from the Association of College and Research Libraries. Their short definition: “Information Literacy is the set of skills needed to find, retrieve, analyze, and use information.”)

I’ll write later about my presentation on remix literacies; here, I’d like to respond briefly to Kathleen Blake Yancey‘s boundary-pushing keynote address (handout). (By the way, I wish I had Yancey’s delivery: a clear, crisp voice, with punchy sentences and never any hesitation. Maybe she’ll give me delivery pointers when she visits USF this spring. Probably fewer parentheses would help.)

Much of her talk contrasted two models of access to information:

  1. The Victoria and Albert Museum model, which, though awesome in its own way for its own time, is inherently restrictive: readers take the time to go to its “cathedral of knowledge” on its terms.
  2. Our entirely new world of information online, which requires new maps and new education and new searching strategies, and which is inherently open, unstructured by time, and accessible.

To this conference crowd of mostly library faculty (with plenty of rhet/comp folks sprinkled in for good luck), perhaps Yancey’s most provocative point was her insistence on teaching content along with information literacy skills. It doesn’t make sense to teach someone how to search a database as though the topic of the search were meaningless, much as it doesn’t make sense to teach someone how to organize a paragraph as though the purpose, audience, and context of the paragraph were meaningless. She pointed out that without content, students don’t see the whole “map” of the information they seek, and therefore don’t learn the big picture–they only learn how to get from point A to point B.

But for me, of all the things I could go into here, I’m especially interested in her 3 categories of sources that might make up an information ecology: there are academic sources (from journals, scholarly books, etc.), mainstream sources (from Time, Malcolm Gladwell, USA Today, etc.), but also alternative sources–anything from The National Enquirer to a blog about science–i.e., anything that doesn’t fit comfortably in the first two categories.

Research these days is necessarily going to encounter all of these types of sources; we can’t simply say to students, “You can only use sources that are academic, from .edu websites, with no advertisements, with reputable authors.” Sometimes the info on mainstream and alternative sources is provocative, worthwhile, and (gasp!) even correct, reputable, important, etc. The trick is that–get this–the reader actually has to read the sources s/he finds and make judgments about them–it’s not a simple one-size-fits-all process!  And that is where students often miss the boat.

I think I’ve been waiting for someone (reputable…*grin*) to say this for a while. After all, when I research online, I blend these kinds of sources all the time; like Chris Anderson, I go to Wikipedia a lot, and don’t feel bad about doing so. I’ve struggled to teach students ways of research that more closely mirror the “real-world” stuff I do all the time, but it’s been hard. Yancey’s paradigm will help, methinks.

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Kanye: Symbol of a New Art

Interesting article in the Guardian (via OzMark17) about how Kanye’s blunder is being mashed-up in all kinds of ways, and how that’s indicative of a growing popular art form (though I don’t think the author, Sam Leith, he calls it art except in the title).

Here’s how I would respond if this were a student paper:

What I like: It’s great, Sam, how you use this overdiscussed Kanye incident to bring up a larger, much more interesting point: the growth of memes in general, including all those over-the-top videos putting new subtitles on Hitler’s rants and one I didn’t know about: “WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS?” Understanding these trends will, I think, do a lot toward helping us understand how cultures of sharing, showing-off, being really funny, and making important rhetorical moves all meet online.

Areas to Improve: You seem unnecessarily interested in the questions of authorship and origination with regards to these memes. You write:

The question that’s always asked about jokes is: where do they come from? They circulate, like funny little ripples in the collective unconscious, but it’s next to impossible to establish who first wondered aloud why the chicken crossed the road. Memes can be traced to their origins, however. And sometimes, like the Hubble telescope peering back to the beginnings of the universe, you can catch sight of one actually beginning.

The question you should ask yourself, Sam, is, “So what?” It seems to me like your concern for who created what is applying an older construction onto a newer art form that thrives in a world of collaboration, sharing, and author-less-ness.  And that’s ok!

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Buffy vs. Edward

I know this is old news for lots of folks by now, but I find myself referring to this Buffy/Edward video mashup so often that I think it’s worth sharing with people who haven’t seen it yet.

Actually, it’s kind of funny that I keep talking about this, since I’ve never seen/read Twilight and I’ve been more of a sideline supporter of Buffy than an actual fan (i.e. I’m a fan of the creative, boundary-pushing work that Buffy fans are so good at doing, but I’ve only seen 3-5 episodes).

But I’ve been thinking a lot about the rhetoric/poetics split lately–how the educators and scholars who are the biggest intellectual supporters of remixing must sometimes find themselves both A) using artistic, “poetic” texts to support their ideas (remixes in music, video, visual arts), and B) teaching students in primarily non-artistic, “rhetorical” genres (academic essays and such). (Note: I realize the problem here: essays can/should be plenty “artistic,” and Aristotle would certainly call rhetoric an “art.” But I think we often still make the kind of distinctions between more and less creative disciplines and genres, right?)

That’s why this video is so exciting: it’s an in-your-face example of art with a rhetorical purpose, of brazenly creative remixing designed to tell an important story. (The creator, Jonathan McIntosh, even wrote an awesome description of why he created it.) My hope is that this kind of work will lead others to see other forms of remix and say, “Wait a minute, I think there’s a really important point here, too.” We could all use some training in reading (and making!) purposeful, world-changing aesthetics.

(Original post on McIntosh’s blog here.)


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Two Images

(via PSFK, via The Pirate’s Dilemma) (Wait, which via should come first? Whatever.)

(via The Pirate’s Dilemma)

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How to Respond to Disagreeable Laws

So I’ve been plowing through an amazing book the last couple of days: Tartleton Gillespie’s Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture. It’s a stellar multidisciplinary examination–Gillespie is a communication professor, but he purposefully pulls from other places too–into the phenomenon of copyright owners and media manufacturers building technical locks into music, movies, and TV.

He’s very convincing about the importance of these issues (or maybe I’ve just been reading so much stuff like this lately that I’m convincing myself by my reading choices). One example: he writes about how what I do with a CD is regulated by copyright law that protects the music’s creators and distributors, but law that is balanced toward my end by fair use. In other words, it’s a violation of copyright for me to make a copy of the CD to give to a friend, but because of fair use, it’s not not illegal for me to sample parts of the CD for a creative new use–especially if that use isn’t going to make me money, and if I don’t use a lot of the original.  But technological, built-into-the-system protections of copyright–like digital rights management on mp3s and codes that only let licensed DVD players play the DVDs distributed by major manufacturers–don’t give me that ability to use my fair use. I’m technologically kept from doing many things that could legally be perfectly legitimate. And that’s, well, not fair.

Gillespie points out that this expands the power of law in wild new directions. Suddenly, “law”–the ability to do something or not–is written not by elected officials who (at least in name) are supposed to have the public’s interest at heart. Now “law” is written by manufacturers and content creators–people who have their own monetary interests most at heart.

So, my real point: at what point, if any, do philosophical problems with practices (like built-in copy protection) give me an ethical, defendable reason to break laws? And which laws–just the DMCA, which says I can’t break past technological barriers, or the wider culturally harmful copyright laws too?

For a long time now–since my 1999 downloading spree with first-gen Napster–I haven’t been a music downloader. I don’t copy CDs I borrow from friends or from the library, unless it’s individual tracks to share with others on mix CDs. (I don’t have a problem with sharing mixes, by the way. I think that the act of sharing music makes others want to buy it.) But lately, I can feel that itch of frustration with music practices that makes me want to frustrate the DRM-loving folks who take fair use away from common folks, giving it only to those who are savvy enough to get past technological fences.

But even more, I don’t want to act out of greed. So for now, unless I’m legitimately exercising my fair use–which I’m going to do a friggin boatload of–I’m not going to grab music for free. But that itch to rebel is still there….

Note 1: the “to download or not to download” question becomes increasingly moot, of course, with so many awesome online tools to make listening to music easier. Sites like Pandora, Lala, and most recently (and probably least sanctioned legally) Fizy give me enough listening joy that I’ve never really had to consider cracking open Limewire and grabbing free yumminess illegally.

Note 2: I think it’s hilarious how Gillespie’s blog looks remarkably like mine. Neat! . . . I think?

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Remixing the Sacred

Recent news story in Kolkata’s The Telegraph about anger over a song that remixes a devotional song in Oriya, an Indian language. To me, the most interesting quote:

“No one has the right to tamper a song that has touched thousands of hearts. Those who have attempted to vulgarise it must be arrested as they have hurt Oriya sentiment,” said Dilip Das Sharma, the president of a local unit of Utkal Sammilani. (source)

On one hand, I want to respect Sharma’s sentiment; people deserve to have their sacred words/texts/songs reserved as sacred.

But on the other hand, isn’t this kind of thing common, if we look at the big picture? People take words of devotion and blend them with contemporary forms to create new experiences of the sacred. . . . It feels natural, evolving, growing, and interactive to me. (But I could be convinced otherwise, I think.)

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May I Teach Ender Books, Please?

So until this year, I had never read the scifi wonder-hit Ender’s Game.  (All people can be neatly classified based on if and how much they are horrified by that statement. To some, it’s like saying I’ve never seen Top Gun [I haven’t] or that I don’t like chocolate [I do].) Actually, I’ve still never read it–a buddy listened to the audio book and insisted I listen too, so I did. (This was the buddy who wisely suggested we read The Brothers Karamazov together as well, so he’s earned a few points in the book-suggestion area.)

Of all the wowzer-ish things I could say about Ender, I’m most haunted by the book’s incredible applicability in a course on digital, public rhetoric. There’s that stellar mid-book chapter where Ender’s story is suddenly, surprisingly set aside for a conversation between his two siblings, Valentine and Peter, who discuss things as varied as deliberately hiding one’s identity online, how public blogging can affect public policy, and the role of honesty and dishonesty when persuading someone to do something you want–both on a worldwide and one-to-one scale.

I was particularly intrigued for 2 reasons:

  1. I sometimes (not always) find myself frustrated with literature-lovers who want to inundate composition courses with fiction and poetry. Though I love teaching literature, and I (increasingly) see tons of important conjunctions between poetics and rhetoric, I often suspect that these teachers are going to take important focus away from the crucial task of teaching writing by spending days and days in class talking about the literary techniques used in novels. But this passage from Ender makes me seriously reconsider this stance; in moderation, in fact, and with the right focuses, it makes me want to argue that we start breaking down boundaries between poetics and rhetoric in composition classes, using stories like these to spark deep-level understandings of the complex uses of rhetoric. And indeed, this might be practically a required position for me to adopt if I want to continue argue that we study the rhetorical messages that live in the “art” created by remixed material. . . . But that’s a discussion for another day.
  2. I talk a lot about trying to find intriguing ways to gel my disciplinary focus in rhetoric with my love for scifi and fantasy studies. So far, the most exciting crossroads between the two has been studying fan fiction, but this passage opens new doors. What would it look like to catalog/study representations of digital selves (and even better, digital writing selves) in scifi lit? Yowza!

And even more intriguing, as I’ve moved onto the first sequel to Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, I’m increasingly dying to teach the very different concepts it raises, about ethnography and research and culture–again, topics that are appropriate questions in a course in rhetoric (especially a research methods course). My wheels are turning. . . .

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Richard Baraniuk on New Models of Learning

In lieu of actually typing much, I’ll just post a link to a long-ish TED video on how the concept of the textbook could be rethought (remixed?) in the future–or actually, dismissed in favor of new digital modes of content delivery. (Thanks, Q, for the link!)

My biggest problem: when I hear stuff like this, I have this sad problem of not being very critical. I.e., I tend to get very cheerleadery and I don’t very well thinking of practical problems. But my experience in a writing program seems to indicate that writing teachers would indeed have lots and lots of serious issues if we actually suggested this kind of open education model at a major university.

Really, I’m just a sucker for digital music parallels. The second he starts talking about “ripping” and “mixing” education, my beard gets a tidge moistened with drool. (That’s gross, right? That’s probably gross. Sorry.)

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